The World of Tomorrow: The 1939 New York World’s Fair

The 1939 New York World’s Fair opened 75 years ago this week. The international exposition was partly a trade show where companies like General Motors and Westinghouse showcased their newest technology, like the latest car models or home appliances, and partly a venue for sixty foreign governments to display their national art, culture, and industry. The event was also a fair in every sense of the word, complete with food and amusements.

At the National Archives, we have a number of films that documented the two-season event dedicated to the “World of Tomorrow.” Most of these films are in the donated collections (one film about the Federal Theater at the World’s Fair can be viewed in our online catalog). This post features stories from the Universal News collection and an edited film from the Ford Collection.

The Universal newsreels covered many aspects of the World’s Fair over the course of its two seasons. Unfortunately, the narration tracks for these reels no longer exist, although some diegetic sound, such as President Roosevelt’s speech, is present in the picture elements.

This first story shows the pomp and circumstance of opening day.

From the release sheet: F.D.R. Opens N.Y. World’s Fair Before 600,000 NEW YORK, N.Y.—The “World of Tomorrow,” spectacular pageant of color and engineering skill, is jammed with excited and thrilled sightseers for its gala opening. Pres. Roosevelt, dedicating the $156,000,000 exhibit calls for world good-will and peace. The evening is climaxed with brilliant fireworks!

The angle of the footage of President Roosevelt’s speech allows for an interesting observation: Keep an eye on the gentleman with the cane who is sitting behind Roosevelt. Apparently, the man’s job is to deliver the cane to Roosevelt as soon as he finishes and help him off the stage. Roosevelt sounds as though he is winding down several times before the actual conclusion, leading the man to get a bit jumpy.

This gem comes from the Universal News production file. Click through to see the full schedule, from the opening of the gates to dancing in the streets and a goodnight fountain display!

Our second featured story, from the May 17th release, shows the General Motors exhibit, a ride in which fair-goers saw a diorama that showed what the roads and cities of the future would look like. If it doesn’t look very futuristic to you, that’s because the National Highway System made the vision of suburbs and multi-lane roads a reality.

From the release sheet: Roads of Tomorrow on Display NEW YORK, N.Y.—A graphic and amazing view of the “Highways and Horizons” of the future is seen at the Gen’l Motors World’s Fair pavilion, where a diorama of future express roads and cities is revealed for visitors.

Our last featured Universal News story is from the July 3rd release. The “G-Man” referenced in the release sheet is, of course, J. Edgar Hoover. Daniel Carter Beard, the elderly gentleman in the sea of Boy Scouts, founded the Sons of Daniel Boone in 1905, an organization that later merged with the Boy Scouts of America.

From the release sheet: Boy Scout Day at the N.Y. Fair NEW YORK, N.Y.—The nation’s No. 1 youth organization, 50,000 strong holds a record meeting at the World’s Fair, with Dan Beard and G-Man Hoover on hand. Oh Boy! The Scouts have fun at the Amusement Center! And eat Hot Dogs!

Several more films featuring the 1939 World’s Fair can be found in the Ford Collection, which makes perfect sense–Ford Motor Company had a popular exhibit pavilion featuring demonstrations, model cars, and a theater that showed a fantasy ballet and the Technicolor film Symphony in F. According to the film below, the building covered seven acres, was “strikingly modern in design and full of action.”

The records of the 1939 World’s Fair are held at the New York Public Library. You can read much more about the fair in their excellent online exhibit, or view a video the library made to highlight their collections.

Thanks go to Jim Konicek, who selected the films for this post.